In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Traci Chee’s Japanese-influenced YA fantasy A Thousand Steps Into Night, out from Clarion Books on March 1.
In the realm of Awara, where gods, monsters, and humans exist side by side, Miuko is an ordinary girl resigned to a safe, if uneventful, existence as an innkeeper’s daughter.
But when Miuko is cursed and begins to transform into a demon with a deadly touch, she embarks on a quest to reverse the curse and return to her normal life. Aided by a thieving magpie spirit and continuously thwarted by a demon prince, Miuko must outfox tricksters, escape demon hunters, and negotiate with feral gods if she wants to make it home again.
With her transformation comes power and freedom she never even dreamed of, and she’ll have to decide if saving her soul is worth trying to cram herself back into an ordinary life that no longer fits her… and perhaps never did.
THE VERGE HOUR
Having retrieved the teacups from the potter, who thrice commented on how improper it was for a girl to be running errands, Miuko was on her way back to the village center, trying to avoid jostling the cloth-lined box of teacups tucked under her arm.
Out here near the old border, the village had entirely surrendered to ruin: collapsed roofs, saplings sprouting through floorboards, birds flitting through great gaps in the walls. As Miuko passed, mist began to rise from the nearby fields, floating eerily over the ditches. Somewhere in one of the abandoned farmhouses, a cat screamed.
At least, Miuko hoped it was a cat. According to legend, the thick fog of the river plains was said to be filled with the ghosts of slain Ogawa soldiers, who climbed from the earth with the mists, heavy with bloodlust. Naiana, the villagers called the mist “spirit vapor.”
Under her arm, the teacups clinked nervously.
Giving the box a comforting pat, Miuko picked up her pace. She may not have paid much heed to her mother’s ghost stories, but she was not fool enough to linger where there might be vengeful spirits about.
She was passing the old mayoral mansion, with its collapsed gate and its ruined gardens, when she spied three children, wiggling and hopping on the road ahead.
There was a squawk, followed by a round of cheers. The children had surrounded a bird—an azure-winged magpie with an ebony head, gray body, and blue-tipped wings and tail. He limped along, dragging his right wing while one of the children circled him, prodding him with a stick. Flopping out of the way, he landed on his side and scrabbled up again as a second child struck him with a rock. The third was just rearing back to pounce when Miuko’s voice rent the air.
“Stop! Leave him alone!”
The children halted mid-step, gazes fixed on her, feral as little foxes.
One grinned at her with crooked teeth. “Make us, lady!”
“Yeah, lady!” said another with narrow eyes.
Forgetting for the moment that she was not a warrior, but a servant girl who had never brawled with other children—and that she did not, strictly speaking, know how to fight—Miuko charged forward, swinging her umbrella in what she hoped was a menacing fashion.
The children scattered, shouting, “Lady! Lady! Lady!” The one with crooked teeth hit her across the thighs with a stick. She tried to kick him, but tripped. She cursed her ineptitude, and then cursed her ankle, which twisted underneath her.
While Miuko regained her footing, one of the children turned around and lowered his pants, exposing his pale bottom, which she promptly smacked with her umbrella.
The paper tore. The bamboo ribs snapped.
The bottom turned red with hurt.
Shrieking, the boy leapt away, rubbing his backside.
The other two laughed and shoved him, and after a moment tussling among themselves, apparently forgetting Miuko altogether, they scampered off into the mist, leaving her alone with an injured ankle, a broken umbrella, and some very shaken ceramicware.
Collecting herself, Miuko looked around for the magpie, but all she could see now was the crumbling gate of the mayoral mansion and the black branches of a cloven pine peeking over the rooftops like a fork of lightning. The fog drew nearer, closing in about her like a noose.
Standing, Miuko tested her ankle. It wasn’t broken, but she’d have to hobble back to the village with twilight nipping at her heels. Quickly, she checked the teacups, touching them one by one with her forefinger: fine… fine… fine… shattered.
The jagged ceramic shards clinked against one another as she sifted through the box. Half the set was damaged, and the others were clearly rattled. Inwardly cursing her own clumsiness, Miuko tucked the pieces back into their places, smoothing out the cloth lining like a tiny shroud before closing the box again.
Could she do nothing right?
The cups were silent.
With a sigh, Miuko began limping back to Nihaoi with her broken umbrella and the cold fragments of the broken teacups sliding this way and that among their brethren.
The fog thickened. Darkness crept over the Old Road. Above, a slim crescent moon, no thicker than the needle of a silver fir, appeared in the mists. Nervously, she wondered if she were still headed toward the village, or if she had been turned around somehow, on some tortuous path spun by trickster spirits. Through the fog, she could have sworn she saw a shape, both massive and ethereal, fluttering overhead.
Had the sun fallen? Had she been caught out in the verge hour?
She stumbled through the fog, breaths coming faster with every step. It seemed like hours since her encounter with the rabid children, an age since she’d left the inn.
So when she saw the balusters of the dilapidated bridge emerge out of the mist, she nearly gasped with relief. Limping, she started forward, but before she could reach the bridge, a flood of cold struck her, frigid as winter.
The world spun. The box of teacups tumbled from her hands with a crash. The broken umbrella tipped into the road like a felled tree.
Reeling, Miuko peered into the fog, which swirled across her vision in dizzy spirals, shifting and parting, revealing trees, ruins, and a lone figure some twenty feet down the Old Road.
No, not a woman.
She was dressed in the robes of a priest, but her skin was a vivid and enigmatic blue, like the most sacred of indigo inks, and her eyes were as white as snow, flicking over the road as if searching—no, hungering—for something.
Miuko staggered backward, startled. Spirits could be good or evil, tricksters or guides, but this one did not seem to be there to help her. Not with that ravenous look in her eyes. “Yagra,” Miuko whispered.
Demon. An evil spirit.
Seeing Miuko on the road, the creature stumbled forward, arms swaying at her sides. With a hair-raising shriek, she darted forward.
Miuko tried to run, but she was too slow, or the spirit was too fast. She was twenty feet away. She was close enough to touch. She was standing before Miuko, hair cascading over her shoulders like long strands of black kelp. Her hands were tangling in Miuko’s robes, drawing Miuko so close, she could feel the demon’s icy breath on her cheek.
Miuko knew she should struggle. If she’d been braver, or more adventurous, like her mother, she would have.
But she was not her mother, and she was not brave.
The creature was speaking now, whispering, the words like smoke upon the chill air. Frozen, Miuko watched the demon’s lips parting, heard the voice that was both a woman’s voice and not a woman’s voice at all, both human and not-of-this-earth: “It must be so.”
Then the spirit leaned forward, and before Miuko could stop her, pressed their mouths together in a perfect, round kiss.
Excerpted from A Thousand Steps into Night, copyright © 2022 by Traci Chee.